Thursday, September 30, 2021

Autumn Brook Trout

 

Some folks live in parts of the country where fishing season never closes. I like the idea of fishing year-round, but I also understand the reason that stream trout season ends the last day of September. Here in northern MN the season closes to protect the Fall spawning brook trout. That makes sense because, well, you can never have too many brook trout. 

For bird hunters like myself, it's hard to think of anything but grouse and woodcock now. Hunting season is open and my eager setter, Gabby, knows it and is ready to hit it. The foliage is still heavy, but turning to the reds, yellows, and oranges of Autumn and after all these years the beauty of it still strikes me. Although there have been some chilling mornings, lately the daytime temps have reached 80 degrees making it too hot for hunting. Hiking through the cover following a bird dog is warming enough -- add that climbing temperature and bright sun and each hunt finds me with a sweat-soaked shirt and exhausted dog. But if it's too hot to hunt, doesn't it make sense to go fishing? 


  


I hung around home for most of the day after a short early hunt with Gabby, then loaded my gear and a cold one on the ATV and headed for the stream. I had my favorite trout rod along and looked forward to an enjoyable evening. The stream looked clear and inviting and I knew these brookies will often rise to a fly even when there's no discernable activity on the water.  Relying on past experience, I tied a well-used #14 Madam X to my 6x leader and cast over a submerged brush pile, the remnants of an old beaver feed bed. A strike came immediately and I jerked and missed, but happy for the quick action. 



  


After a summer of casting mostly 8,9, and 10 weight rods, my little 3oz. 7'9" rod felt like air in my hand and I had look occasionally to see if I still had a hold of it. I missed a couple of strikes before hooking up to a beauty of a little brookie in full spawning color.  I admired the fish with a photo and slipped it back into the water. For variety I changed to a #18 caddis and landed three more of those pretty trout.  Catching those wild, backwoods brook trout on dry flies is about as good as it gets, but time passes quickly when you're fishing and when I noticed the sky had turned from blue to purple and looked at the dark forest surrounding me, I knew it was time to head home. 



Friday, September 24, 2021

Rain Day


 Sometimes you just have to enjoy a rainy day from indoors. Well, maybe not all day – but after a short jaunt in 50-degree, wet woods, it felt darn good to shed dripping raingear and heavy boots. But the rain is welcome after the record-breaking drought we went through this summer. While we weren't experiencing the huge wildfires like they are out west, here in northern MN we had more than usual. In May a wildfire burned woods just west of us and when it blew to within a quarter mile we were advised to evacuate. Well, we did pack up a few things but between the Forest Service and the local volunteer fire department the burn never reached our property. Nor did we ever leave, but instead sat outside and watched an impressive air show of fire-fighting planes and helicopters. The fire was pretty much knocked down the first day, but ground crews found hot spots two more days and the helicopters returned to dip water out of a pond across the road and quench what was left.  






Now that we're getting some rain it's easy to forget how hot and dry it was and the bigger fires north and east of us are under control. It’s time to enjoy the changing Autumn leaves and look forward to the Fall season. The beavers have finally backed up some water on the creek near here, but the rivers and lakes are still low and we'll need some good rainfall and winter snow to get them where we'd like to see them.  

Grouse hunting season has been open for almost a week and Gabby and I have been enjoying it. I can't say we've been all that productive, but it's still early and the best of the season is yet to come. There's some good Fall fishing ahead as well, but for the rest of today I believe we'll stay warm and dry inside. Happy Autumn! 


Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Routines

Sometimes following a routine could be construed as being stuck in a rut. But it’s only a rut if you don’t like it. Depending on the time of year, the season, I guess you could say that I’m a man of routine. Almost every morning of this long, dry summer I would take a short ride on my bike with Gabby running alongside. We’d get out early, when the sun was still low and before the day’s heat set in. Sometimes we’d only go for a mile. Sometimes a bit over three. Our turnarounds were Lindgren’s barn, the RR tracks, Orpha’s corner, or the town hall. It was just enough to get a bit of exercise (mostly for Gabby) and to get a handle on the day. We often spotted deer along the way, and became familiar with the pair of sandhill cranes that trodded the open fields west of here. As August wore on Gabby would sometimes slam into a point just off the road and I’d have to stop and wade into the brush to flush a young brood of grouse. Of course, we always like finding birds, but that brush can be kind of tough when you’re wearing shorts and sandals. 


Lately, the morning route has taken a different path. It’s close to bird hunting season and better than that: the days are cool. Morning temps in the low 40’s calls for real pants and boots while we hike a quarter-mile of hay field to the cover beyond. Though the hay was cut weeks ago, it’s hardy grown due to drought conditions and is only a few inches deep. Now, early morning dew makes us forget how dry the months have been and the wet grass shimmers in the light and looks like the frost which will be here soon. 


Gabby runs ahead, of course, and I can’t help thinking about how many times I’ve enjoyed watching a bird dog racing across this field over the past four decades. And how many young dogs have I seen pointing the planted birds I hid in spots around this field. I get a little melancholy knowing there were more behind me than there will be ahead. 



That field has remained constant over the years but the woods surrounding it have changed. Once old and heavy with over-mature aspen and balsam, it was clearcut and created an open rolling landscape that new growth thrived in. Now, that new growth is getting older but has been a fine bird covert for years. Along with a little creek running through and the accompanying alder and willow runs and thickets my dogs have found countless woodcock and grouse in that cover.  



It’s a short walk from my door and I can be found out there working a dog most springtime mornings and now, when summer seems to be surrendering to autumn. Just this morning I followed Gabby into the cover off the south edge of the field. The leaves are changing but the foliage is still summer thick and she wasn’t always easy to find when she pointed six woodcock and had two grouse finds, one single and the other a brood of five. I finally gathered her up and steered her for home – we hadn’t had breakfast, yet. 



The road borders the north side of the field and we stopped there for a moment. I took another look back across the field and once again confirmed how fortunate I am... and what a good life it is. 


 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Another day in God's country

If there's a better way to get in touch with the spirit of the north than standing thigh deep in a remote backwoods river -- gripping a bent fly rod with an angry muskie on the end of the line -- I can't say what it is.

I was wading my way downstream, thinking the water looked deeper that direction and maybe, just maybe, there'd be a muskie lurking about. Due to the ongoing drought the river level was lower than it's been in years, making it a tough float even for a canoe. It therefore made wade fishing possible and a way to learn the river like never before. What there was for current was slow and easy, only showing itself through narrow channels in and around shallow rocky sections and newly exposed islands. A gathering breeze sang its song rustling the heavily forested river banks.



Wade fishing muskies is not the simplest thing I've done and nothing I've done a lot of, but I've learned some things when going boat-less. A small pack, one that can be slid around to your chest is handy to carry a box with a few favorite flies, leaders, and the couple of tools you probably won't need. Landing a fish may be easier if you keep one of those jaw grippers and spreaders hanging from your belt on the opposite side of your line stripping hand. Ideally, I won't use those tools but when the fish is ready and close enough, I'll take a good look at the silvery green-ness of that intriguing wild fish before reaching down to remove the barbless hook with forceps or fingers.



The water depth seldom reached higher than my thighs and I was able to stay mostly in mid-river, and from there cast to likely cover along each bank and ahead of me in the open river. Despite hopeful anticipation of hooking a big fish, the sounds and smells of nature couldn't be ignored and I felt like I belonged right where I was. Time passed faster than distance and I considered turning back to my truck for the lunch and coffee waiting, but a tempting looking outside bend a hundred yards down river convinced me to continue. Upon reaching it I tossed my big deer-hair fly towards a submerged weed bed. Stripping line, the wake behind came on the second cast and a series of short, jerky strips triggered the strike!

The thrill of watching a big fish come at your fly and then take it is indescribable. Like all game fish, muskies rip and yank and dart across the river trying to wrench free from the hook that's holding them. The tug and pull is excitement at a high level and in the back of your mind there's a split second of wondering about the strength of your knots, the integrity of the leader, and the stoutness of the rod. There's a lot that can go wrong, but when the fish was finally at my lap and looking me in the eye as I released it, it seemed too soon to be over. 

After gulping lunch I drove to another section of the river to explore and try for another muskie. This is wild country if not exactly wilderness, a land of wolves and bears, eagles and ospreys. There have been occasional reports of cougars in the area. In these modern times wild country might be described as anywhere there's no cell phone service. You won't be calling anyone from your phone on this river. Carry a first aid kit in that pack, you know, for the little stuff.

As I waded upstream looking for likely places to cast to, I was hit by a strong wind and surprised by a crack of thunder. Suddenly the trees were swaying and a dark storm was fast approaching. I headed back for the truck and grew anxious when I found two trees had blown down over the trail I'd just hiked in on. Worried about the safety of my truck parked up in the woods, I hurried ahead and hopped behind the steering wheel just as the deluge hit. With windshield wipers at full speed I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to the main road.

The day turned dark and I drove towards home as rain pounded the roof of my truck and thunder announced piercing flashes of lightning. The paved road was covered with blown branches and leaves and several downed spruce trees covered parts of the driving lane. Safe and warm in my vehicle, I smiled at the thought of a wild river in wild country, the wild muskie that gave a tough battle and a fine memory, and the retreat from a wild storm. Quite a day -- I'm thankful for it.








Sunday, August 8, 2021

August Smallmouth

They walked up while I was strapping the boat down for the drive home. Two enthusiastic fellows, not much younger than myself, with the eagerness one feels after driving to far away water full of hungry easy-to-catch big fish. Or something like that. They pulled a nice boat, newer than mine and equipped with some pretty fancy looking electronics, and probably believed this northern Minnesota lake was so full of walleyes they would have no problem filling their live well in short order.  


They assumed I was a local, which I am, and despite the confidence they had in their own angling skills, it never hurts to get a bit of local knowledge. We exchanged the usual fishermen pleasantries and one of the guys leaned on the gunwale of my boat and spotted the rod strapped to the port side shelf. “You’re fly fishing?!"  



I’ve been asked that before and my short and vaguely descriptive answer is well practiced. Well, they said, that sounds like fun but what about the walleyes. What could I say? Yes, the lake is full of them, watch for the hazard buoys and you’ll do fine.  


But I’m fly-fishing bass. I’ve been using a fly rod for a long time, and not just for bass. Trout fishing has long been known as fly rod territory. Then there’s a variety of panfish, and pike and muskies. And yep, I’ve caught walleyes on the fly, but it wouldn’t be my first choice if I was looking to secure the fixins’ for a fish fry. Of course, there are a lot of other finned critters to be caught but I can’t know everything.  



I’m a self-taught fly caster, never had a lesson in my life – I could have used a better teacher, though, ask anyone. I became good at the wrong things. I still practice a lot of them. I like to flip a loop around my reel once in a while, to add some challenge. And let’s not talk about stepping on the line. Occasionally, when my timing is just right, the line seems to shoot out on its own and it feels great. That’s when my fly gets stuck ten feet up in a tree. No telling how far that thing would have flown if not for the tree. The title of my book will be By The Time I'm Good At This I'll Be Too Old To Do It. But every now and then I get it right and my fly lands somewhere close to where it should. 


There’s nothing like being on the water before the sun tops the trees and working a deer-hair diver or foam popper over a rocky shoreline. That’s what it takes on the lakes this late in the year, when the bass move off the shallow feeding areas into deep water as the day brightens and warms. A cup of coffee makes good company while the intermittent hum of the trolling motor gets drowned out by awaking song birds. 



This is a slow, lazy approach that matches my state of mind after crawling out of bed at 4 a.m. It differs from river fishing. There’s no current pushing downstream and the water is usually glassy smooth. Then the theory that the big bass respond to a fly sitting quietly on the water is hard to argue with – indeed, the first bass of the other morning hit my deer hair diver when it sat floating on the water for half a minute or so while I was sipping that coffee and having a look around. Pretty much hooked itself. That fish was also the biggest of the day, coming in a bit shy of the 21 incher I’m still waiting to catch. But that theory isn’t written in stone and the next bass hit just as the fly touched down with a splash. 



As the sun rose higher it was colored by haze from wildfire smoke up north. By late morning a southerly breeze cleared the air and the temperature climbed. I’d netted some fish, including a couple of small pike and lost a nice fly to the slashing strike of a bigger pike I wish I’d landed. A few boats were buzzing around out on the big part of the lake, searching for walleyes I suppose, and a group of kayaks were exploring some nearby islands. It was another fine morning for me, and I’d be home for lunch. 



 


 


 


 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Feb. 2021

 

When it's as cold as it's been these last days it's easy to become an armchair birdwatcher. Now, a real bona fide birder has a binocular hanging from their neck, a waterproof notebook at hand, and a felt fedora on their heads. But at these temps even the most dedicated are tempted to do their watching through a window. Every morning waking up to 25 to 30 below temperatures makes that hot coffee smell even better while dampening the desire to get outside. My routine of late is to go out and fill the birdfeeder while the eastern horizon is just getting light, return for a bit of breakfast, and then sit near the window with coffee and a book. Before the sun breaks the tree tops the chickadees and grosbeaks arrive and the feeder becomes the busiest place for the day. On and off they'll be joined by nuthatches, finches, blue jays, and several other species that are common to northwoods winters.



Occasionally a Pileated woodpecker will stop in the tree next to the feeder wondering what the commotion is about. Downy woodpeckers and gray jays fly in looking for suet. A few days ago I spotted a Northern Shrike land close, probably hoping to spot a vole or mouse feeding on spilled seeds.


Those spilled seeds on the ground are wildlife attractant in their own right. We've watched red foxes stalking the snow around the feeder for the same little rodents the Shrike was hoping to find, and gray foxes show up at night for the same. Then there are deer. Deer visit daily and munch birdseed under the feeder fifteen feet from the window. We've seen as many as seven crowding each other providing countless photos and videos. A couple of deer are rearing up to help themselves to the goods right off the feeder.



I like winter activities and am lucky to be able to enjoy them close by. Skies and snowshoes are standard equipment. I like splitting firewood when it's cold. This winter I've been riding a new fat bike on packed trails that's either keeping me in shape or wearing me out. There are woods to be wandered with a .22 rifle right out the door and I have a mess of ice-fishing gear that I hardly use anymore, but it's there and ready. Then there's gazing out the window – call it lazy it you want, and it probably is, but the view is great.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Nothin' to prove...

 

I guess you could call it an Indian Summer, though it came on so quickly I think everyone just went outside and basked in the sun without thinking to call it anything but welcome. When it snows in mid-October, even here in northern Minnesota, it catches us all unaware. Sure, it was predicted but the temperatures had been hanging in at 35-40 degrees and we all figured a bit of snow would melt quickly. But temps dropped with the snow and here we were dealing with 20 degrees and six inches of snow. In a few days the smaller lakes were ice covered and it looked like winter had arrived.



Low and behold, a couple of days before the month ended we were treated to a warm spell. The sun broke out and heated things up to 60 or a little better. The snow melted, the roads (at least the country roads around my place) turned to mud and suddenly every vehicle around wore the same brown coat. No one was about to wash their car until things dried up.


I'd pretty much stowed my fishing stuff for the year and Gabby and I were happily content hunting grouse, but sunny calm 60 degree days in November offered a rare open water angling opportunity. I only had to decide where.



Everyone knows that muskies feed heavily in the fall to supposedly fatten up for winter. Or so they say, though it could strain the definition of common knowledge. I've fished for, and caught, muskie late in the season but I'm still waiting to hit the feeding frenzy. I recently heard of a guy who hooked 13 muskies in one day fly fishing, and landed nine of them. He wasn't in this part of the country but still, I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. I mean, just when you get to feeling pretty savvy about your musky skills you hear something like that.


I figured to slide my jon boat down the bank into my favorite musky river, motor upstream for an hour or so and float/fish my way back. That would eat up most of the short autumn day and I'd still be off the water before dark. No telling how many muskies I'd hook.



The river was running a little high and dirty, which I knew it would  thanks to the melting snow, meaning I could run my motor without too much worry of hitting obstacles or bottom. Of course lower water concentrates the fish and may mean easier fishing so there's always that trade-off. I've paddled my canoe upstream during low water periods and enjoyed wading to mid-river and casting to deep runs at outside bends but I've never been as far up as I expected to with the jon boat. Part of this trip was exploratory.



My little 2.5 horsepower motor puttered me against the current at the comfortable rate. I slowed her down when I knew I was over shallows and twisted the throttle when it seemed safe. I did hit a rock in mid-river once – my homemade lower unit guard provided some comfort but the unprotected prop took the brunt. It wasn't the first time that motor tangled with rocks and though no real damage occurred, the leading edges of that three bladed prop are looking like chair legs the puppy has chewed.


The river itself is a beauty no matter the time of year. There's a hunting shack near the road and put-in, but from there upstream it's wild and undeveloped. You'll have no cell phone service and it doesn't take long to realize if you have trouble it could be real trouble, but I figured if I didn't fall out of the boat I should be OK. The bare shoreline hardwoods allowed a good view into the woods and I kept looking for wildlife, which seemed missing that day.


I stopped motoring at an inlet stream that looked too good to pass. My small folding anchor held while I stood and fan cast the area with a bright 6/0 streamer on a 10wt intermediate line, to no avail. On the way up I'd seen a boil of a big fish near the bank and it's wake out in midstream but didn't stop to try for it, thinking I'd get it on the way back. So after I poured some coffee and ate a sandwich I pulled anchor for the float down.


Float fishing from a boat by yourself is not the easiest thing to do, but the river was good to me and I could drift and cast a decent way without grabbing an oar for correction – there was no wind, which helped – although here and there it seemed prudent to anchor and cast to a run or some kind of cover be it a fallen tree or rocky shoreline. If anything, I drifted too fast – my handheld GPS read the current 1 ½ mph – giving me one shot, and one shot only, at some of the spots I wanted to cast to. In much of the river you can float down the middle and reach both banks with a good cast. Then you'll go around a bend and the river spreads out and widens. If you're fishing the left bank you'll be looking at the right side and wonder if you should move over there.


I didn't see the fish hit. I'd been working the banksides for a couple of miles with no activity and had pretty much given up the idea of any fish feeding binge. Lulled into distraction, between gazing into the passing forest, a satisfying pastime in itself, and watching for any downstream deadheads I was basically going through the motions. I don't know if I first felt the tightening line or saw the boil just under the surface from the corner of my eye, but I do recall making one deliberate long and hard strip set before losing some line to the musky torpedoing away.


Fighting a big fish is always fun, that's why we do it, but add the element of standing in a narrow out-of-control jon boat being turned by a hard pulling fish on collision course with a brush-lined riverbank and you have the makings for a mild tragedy or hilarious comedy. Just before hitting the bank I sat down to avoid being thrown off balance (I once drifted into a submerged log that stopped the boat dead and I nearly pitched backwards into the drink) and continued playing the fish.


I ended up on my knees one-handing the net under the fish and bracing the handle on the gunwale as a fulcrum to lift. Somewhere along the way I tossed the anchor and stopped the boat bouncing along the shoreline. The barbless hook came out easily and I admired the fish still in the net. Compared to the width of my boat this fish was probably 38, maybe 40 inches of spotted silvery green firm muscled musky. Awesome! It was a two-second decision to can the monkey-motion it would take to get a decent photo, so the net was lowered and this beauty of a fish swam away with a swish of it's tail. I'd have no proof to show for the catch, but the experience was all mine and as right as it could be. I smiled at the thought.


Getting the boat up the take-out wasn't as simple as getting it down, but thanks to a stout rope and long winch strap I was on the road for home as the sun went down. A good adventure and a great memory to be thankful for.







Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Grouse are flyin'

 


As bird dogs go, my Gabby may not be the best I've ever seen but now on our sixth season we know each other pretty well. She finds and points birds as best she can and I try to shoot them as best I can. She hunts hard and I've never seen a dog that takes more delight in the hunt. If she could I believe she'd be laughing as she darts in and out of the cover. Now days it's become common to buckle expensive GPS locating collars on bird dogs, even those claimed to be grouse and woodcock dogs. No need for that with Gabby because though she's not always working close, I'm able to keep track of her with only the bell on her collar which seems right for a grouse dog. If time could be backed up I think I would have enjoyed developing a line of easy-handling English setters for grouse hunters.



I recently re-read George Bird Grinnell's article Woodcock Shooting. In it he describes the ideal grouse and woodcock dog to be close ranging – never beyond a gunshot – nor desirable to work at high speed – to know thoroughly the best manner of working to the gun – as silently as possible, though a small bell can be useful in thick cover. I like the phrase “best manner of working to the gun” but I fear today's gunners have no use for any of Grinnell's opinion. Of course when that article was published in 1910 bird hunting was much different than today and I have to believe grouse and woodcock were far more plentiful as Grinnell recounts day's total kills that modern gunners would be lucky to match in a lifetime.

Grinnell would be disappointed in my Gabby's range, within gunshot is a flushing dogs job, but he might have appreciated her change in style when she's working game. She'll often slow her pace and strike a point, then move a bit, creeping forward or sometimes to the side until she is convinced the bird is located. Two days ago I watched her work scent from a distance and when she finally locked up I pushed ahead to flush and kill one of the largest ruffed grouse I've ever seen. When it works like that it's something to see. Then yesterday I saw her skid to a point when she found scent and never twitched while I flushed the grouse ahead of her. After that I stood and watched her for a long minute as she stop-started a semi circle around a blowdown that looked good for grouse but on my approach a woodcock surprised me and offered an easy shot. You can never be sure of how it will happen and I've come to appreciate Gabby's method of making game – sometimes it's the best part of the sport.

 



I would have liked gunning in Grinnell's day. Today's gear is certainly more high-tech, maybe even more comfortable but I like the idea of wool and canvas shooting clothes, and felt hats. A compass and paper map and brass bell worn by intelligent setters pointing more and running less, Give me a pair of high lace-up boots and a solid hand finished double gun. No need for electronics.



A cold rain is falling this morning and it looks to be an all-dayer. We'll not be in the woods today but the rain is welcome in what's been a very dry Autumn. We'll be at it again, soon. The grouse are flyin' and we're shootin' pretty good!